The extreme ranges of any instrument express extreme emotion, but they’re not easy to tackle. The high register is notoriously difficult on most instruments and the low register is often under-developed and under-utilized. The standard approach towards these registers is to extend your scales and arpeggio exercises as high and as low as you can. Yes, this is a great start, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t do that, however, if you think by simply playing scales and arpeggios in these registers that you’re going to suddenly be using them creatively while you improvise, you better guess again.
And furthermore, the idea of “extending your range” does not simply mean you can play one note really high. That’s useless.How interesting is it really to hear some trumpet player squeaking out the highest note he can in the most un-musical and look-at-me manner?
Get over it. Nobody cares how high you can play. Well, not true; the same crowd that loves Kenny G, probably would love to hear you play high too. But seriously…the high and low registers can be used musically and with purpose.
Once you learn the fingerings and proper relaxed technique to achieve the sound you desire in these registers, there are some obvious but rarely used tactics to explore, which will help you become fluid in using the extreme ranges while improvising.
Apply language to extreme ranges
This is the most obvious concept, yet the most overlooked. We probably sound like a broken record. Language, language, language. You get it.
Now, just take that same piece of language you’re working on and extend it the full range of your horn. For example, on saxophone, take the idea all the way down to low Bb, and take it slowly and carefully up through the altissimo range as high as you’re comfortable. When you get so high, to the point that you’re having difficulty, go slower.
Make sure you’re using the correct fingerings and keeping your air moving through the horn. Use the piece of language as a tool to master those tricky high notes. You’ll be amazed at how well this simple exercise works. Not only will you start to become fluid over those previously difficult notes, but you’ll actually be able to use them when you improvise.
Transcribe solos out of your range
Transcribing solos that are not your instrument is super fun and educational. Each instrument has a totally different perspective and studying these other points of view will open your ears and your mind.
The first solo that I worked on, if I remember correctly, that was not my instrument was a trumpet solo. I recall it being fairly tricky to hear. It wasn’t like transcribing a tenor player. When you’re transcribing your own instrument, you can hear a lot of the idiosyncrasies of the instrument, which helps you figure out what’s being played. When it’s not your instrument, you have a lot less help.
And as I continued to match note-for-note what the trumpet player was playing, I had to take some notes down an octave, as they were quite high. Once I got the solo under my fingers and in my ear, I decided I’d go back and try to play the entire solo in the range that the trumpet player played it in. This would require me to extend my range well into the altissimo register. No worries. I just slowed down the solo a ton in Transcribe and worked it out gradually.
After this work on the trumpet solo, I became much more fluid in the altissmo range.
Now you don’t have to go higher all the time either. The extreme low register can be used in all sorts of cool ways. You could use the same tactic as I did but in reverse. If you play tenor, try a bari solo, or if you play alto, try a tenor solo.
Transcribing solos out of your range like this will give you a whole new perspective on sound and timbre.
Improvise with range restrictions
Something I’ve heard countless professionals say is they improvise over tunes while imposing range restrictions. It’s a pretty straight-forward concept but not easy to implement in a musical way, in fact, that’s the difficult part about it. Anyone can say, “I’m only going to play notes between Bb and F this chorus,” but can they do it in a musical way?
Sonny Rollins is a master of this. He’ll take just a few notes and hang out in a particular range for a while, developing a theme and turning it on it’s head. Listen to Sonny play St. Thomas. Even if you’ve heard it a thousand times, listen to it again and pay close attention to how he develops an idea in a particular range.
Imposing range restrictions is fun and can get you out of playing the same stuff all the time, while helping you focus on the high and low registers. Take one of the lowest notes on your instrument and the note a fifth above. Then, use only the notes contained within that interval as you improvise for a chorus or two.
So, if you play saxophone, perhaps you’d take the lowest note, Bb, and a fifth above, F, and try to create melodies that you can develop and build upon. Then, try the same thing up high.
Extending your range
Extending your range does not need to be an up-hill-battle and it doesn’t need to be something you desire for the purpose of impressing people. The extreme ranges can be used in a lyrical and musical way as an extension of your voice.
Start taking language that you know well and move up into the stratosphere and down as low as your instrument is capable of. Then, for your next solo, choose an instrument that’s either in a higher or lower register than yours, forcing you to accommodate to their range.
First learn the solo, but then try to match the original notes as best as you can. And the next tune you work on, practice improvising while imposing some range restrictions. With these 3 exercises, you’ll soon be able to to wield the extremes ranges of your instrument with ease.